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16 March 2016

How do we decode the “Obama doctrine”?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s 20,000-word write-up of his series of interviews with Obama in the Atlantic makes for fascinating reading. But what does it tell us about the president's strategies?

By John Bew

American introspection assumes many forms, from the gauche to the professorial. As the world looks on in horrified fascination at the nativism of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, it would be easy to miss subtler and more eloquent forms of the “America First” sentiment that is on the rise, and has already seeped into the Oval Office.

Aside from being a masterpiece of journalism, Jeffrey Goldberg’s 20,000-word write-up of his series of interviews with President Obama in the latest issue of the Atlantic makes hard reading for many allies of America. David Cameron, according to Obama, was “distracted by a range of other things” after the 2011 intervention in Libya, and uses the wrong language when discussing radical Islamism. Obama warned that the UK cannot have a “special relationship” unless, at the very least, it maintains its Nato commitment of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence.

Some of this griping is not unreasonable. European nations, and several of those in the Middle East, have become complacent and flabby under the security umbrella provided by Washington since 1945. There has indeed, as Obama put it, been an element of “free riding”. But it is equally true that the US has done well out of the order it established after the Second World War, which was then revamped and much trumpeted at the end of the Cold War. These days, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the United States is ever less willing to maintain what was once called leadership of the “free world”. One result is that a number of US allies, Britain included, have been caught in the slipstream of a grand strategy that has – over Syria, for example – lurched between bouts of frenzied diplomatic activity and periods of drift.

Close Obama watchers will not be surprised by the underlying sentiments in what the Atlantic tentatively calls the “Obama doctrine”. Previous iterations include “leading from behind” and “Don’t do stupid sh*t”. Obama sees himself a being in the tradition of the “realist” school of American foreign-policymaking. This has three spokes. The first is a theologically conditioned world-weariness with the limits of human action, of “doing good and resisting evil”. The second is an admiration for the “realist” credentials of the first President George Bush (“Bush 41”) and Brent Scowcroft, Bush Sr’s national security adviser. The third is a desire for retrenchment and restraint, which as much as anything was a reaction against the legacy bequeathed to him by his immediate predecessor, including long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a seemingly interminable “war on terror”.

These were instincts that Obama acquired long before he came to office. While the world was fawning over his message of “change” – pre-emptively awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 – they missed that Obama never saw himself as a world-healer, an internationalist antidote to Bush Jr, but first and foremost as a president who would focus his efforts on the target he felt had been neglected: the home front. Avoiding costly and lengthy interventions in the Middle East was the first step towards that (though it has proved easier said than done).

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That Obama is articulate about foreign policy is without question. But the “Obama doctrine” does not stand up to scrutiny and looks more like a post-facto rationalisation of decisions taken on the hoof, usually under the force of events beyond his control. Opportunities for contrition or reflection in Goldberg’s interviews are turned into a self-justificatory narrative. The most striking example of this is the rationale for why he stopped short of enforcing the “red lines” over use of chemical or biological weapons that he warned Bashar al-Assad not to cross in the Syrian Civil War.

With sleight of hand, Obama turned the case for the prosecution into one for the defence. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told Goldberg. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake.”

Obama views it as a lasting achievement that he was able to break with the “Washington playbook”. In truth, he went back on himself and belatedly changed position, leaving many allies, including his secretary of state, John Kerry, surprised, exposed and undermined. Obama may have thrown out the Washington playbook, but he was too slow to tell those who had grown accustomed to playing by its rules.

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue